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By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
Leaders of U.S. public transit agencies know they’re facing the potential of losing more than half their workforce within the next five to 10 years due to retirements. That’s a lot of workers — and a lot of experience and knowledge that will be lost.
“Over the next 10 years, we are looking at something like 40 percent or more of people in management roles will reach a normal retirement age,” said Steve Jaffe, director of human services at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA). “That is a huge amount of experience. And frankly, that sends a huge chill down our CEO’s spine. There are key individuals who play critical roles in our organization who have 30 and 40 years of experience who could walk away.”
For the past few years, agencies and trade groups such as the American Public Transportation Association have been exploring and implementing many strategies for replacing those workers. During the past year, three agencies — LACMTA, Regional Transit District of Denver (RTD) and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) — have been working together on a new employee exchange program that helps prepare current middle-level managers for higher level management and leadership positions at their respective agencies.
The recession of recent years has slowed the rate of retirement for many individuals, Jaffe acknowledges. Still, the top leaders of LACMTA, RTD and DART are wasting no time in leadership succession planning.
“In public transit, the work we do is very specialized,” said Jaffe. “You can’t go to school and get a degree in transit operations management. You have to build those people rather than go out and buy them. So, our CEO [Art Leahy] has made developing the next generation of leaders a major theme of his leadership.”
The Multi-Agency Exchange (MAX) program between LACMTA, RTD and DART is part of that theme. Under MAX, the agencies each chose eight individuals and one program facilitator to spend a week at each agency, touring and learning the ins and outs of operations, maintenance, technology, budgeting and finance, marketing, security, quality and service standards, capital projects, administration, human resources, and labor relations.
RTD hosted the first session in Denver in late August 2011; LACMTA hosted the second session in January, and DART is preparing to host the third and final session in mid-April.
Although the agencies vary in size — LACMTA’s average weekday ridership is about 1.4 million, RTD’s is about 322,000 and DART’s is about 59,800 — each can offer an array of possible solutions to similar problems confronted by any agency.
“There’s a lot we can learn from each other,” said Jaffe, who is participating in the exchange as LACMTA's facilitator.
Each host agency develops the four-day curriculum. Although the curriculum varies a bit by agency, the format at the first two agencies has included an overview of the agency’s system and operations, and tours of departments and construction sites.
For instance, RTD officials offered visitors from DART and LACMTA a tour of bus and rail operations, and the agency’s FasTracks project to build 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, and 18 miles of bus rapid transit. The visitors learned about agency governance, and met with RTD board members and senior leaders, including RTD’s chief executive Phillip Washington.
Meeting senior leaders and asking them questions about their work was a helpful learning experience for DART employees, said Lynda Jackson, vice president of human resources for DART.
“The lessons learned have been great,” she added. “Some of these employees would never be in an environment where they would meet the CEO of RTD.”
In addition, DART employees have reported that the opportunities to share best practices with peers have been invaluable, Jackson said.
Steve Gieske’s January visit to LACMTA was the first time he toured another agency since he started working for RTD 19 years ago. An operating division maintenance manager for district shops at RTD, Gieske was invited by his assistant general manager to participate in the exchange. He also is enrolled in RTD’s year-long leadership development program.
Gieske appreciated the opportunity to compare the similarities and differences between LACMTA’s and RTD’s ways of doing things. For instance, Gieske saw that LACMTA typically performs midlife rehabilitations of buses, whereas RTD “fixes buses on a fix-as-they-fail basis,” he said.
“We’re still taking about it to see if [LACMTA’s practice] is something that could be valuable for us to do,” said Gieske.
Gieske also was exposed to departments and subjects outside his expertise — areas such as finance, human resources, marketing and agency governance. Such exposure helps him hone the skills he’ll need to advance into leadership positions, he said.
Gieske is looking forward to visiting DART in April. After that, the three agencies will determine whether to keep the exchange going by inviting a new group of participants or bringing additional agencies into the fold.
Whatever the decision, Gieske, Jackson and Jaffe believe the exchange has been worthwhile. Gieske, for one, feels fortunate to have been chosen to be part of RTD’s leadership development program.
“Phil Washington and the other general managers realize we have an aging workforce, and very soon there are going to be a lot of vacancies in upper management or leadership,” said Gieske. “And transit is such a unique industry that there isn’t a huge workforce to draw from, so agencies really need to start building some leaders.”